Despite their professed enthusiasm for all that Brexit will bring, ministers at Defra must miss some of the good aspects of being an EU farm minister.

For years one of the better parts of the job was attending the informal farm councils hosted by the country holding the six-month EU presidency. These were largely social occasions, but also an opportunity to see other country’s agricultural industries and a venue for informal debate of key issues. Ministers at Defra are instead now well aware what a drudge their job is when responsible for an industry no-one else in government cares about.

Agriculture should be one of the great jobs in a Conservative government, as it once was, but it is now a far distant second to the environment in the Defra brief.

This month Slovenia was the venue for the informal council. The subject for debate was the growing economic gap between urban and rural areas in Europe. Despite a commitment in the EU charter to bridge this gap with more prosperous urban areas, years of rural development policies have not delivered. Rural development came into vogue when Ray MacSharry was the first Irish EU farm commissioner, back in the early 1990s. Billions have been spent since then, but the statistics remain grim. Farming alone cannot support these areas; the population is on average older and less skilled than in urban areas and younger people are voting with their feet every day. When there is an economic crunch and urban areas suffer, these problems are magnified in rural areas – and that is a process made worse by the pandemic.

The EU in June launched a new rural vision plan as its latest effort to narrow this economic and social gap. It is pinning its hopes on green policies driving a new rural economy and the development of a better digital infrastructure to leave the countryside as well connected as the cities of Europe. It also believes policies such as greening, short supply chains and the commitment to 25% of land in the EU being organic by 2030 will drive new economic activity in the countryside. Time will tell whether these latest ideas will prove more effective than what the past 30 years of rural development policies have delivered. However to their credit the European Commission and European farm ministers at are at least showing an awareness that the problem exists and must be tackled.

The same cannot be said of the UK. Rural development, especially the parts not related to agri-environment policies, is part of the long list of measures once driven by the EU where new ideas need to emerge. That list includes food promotion, veterinary medicine regulations, agrochemical legislation and the key area of support to maintain farm incomes. One of the advantages of a UK minister being part of a bigger agricultural scene is that ideas from others can be taken on board. Instead Brexit has brought an isolation from Europe without any gains in terms of relations or idea swapping with the rest of the world. The result is a government trying to develop national policies based around an English model. Unless devolution really delivers, this is in danger of creating a situation where Scottish farmers find they have swapped rules from Brussels designed for a European model for rules being from Westminster for an English model.

One of the failings of the BBC and others in reporting on farming is combining it with the environment. This then gives everything in agriculture a green spin, which is why Clarkson’s Farm worked well and broke the mould. Farming should be part of business coverage, because it is the foundation of one of the UK’s few successful indigenous industries adding value to a natural resource.

Under Westminster government plans the environment will become central to the new industry support structures. That creates an opportunity for radical thinking in rural development. The EU is stuck with a well-intentioned belief in traditional policy thinking. The UK has the opportunity to break away and seek out radical rural development policies that really could help transform rural areas. That would be a Brexit dividend worth pursuing, but there are no signs of that happening. Rural development, for historical reasons, has always been under-funded and poorly thought out in the UK. More of the same seems to be all the government is offering, without even the fine words the EU is using in its rural vision plans.